Monday, March 31, 2014

Taking our U-haul Camper to South Dakota

Fiberglass U-haul (uhaul) CT13 Camper Entering Custer State Park, SD
U-haul (uhaul) CT13 Camper with wildlife in Custer State Park, SDSo after a year with the U-haul camper, we decided to take our first long trip. This was not going to be a simple weekend trip. This was going to be a trip of memories: 10-days on the road, 3500 miles round trip. We had always wanted to see Mt. Rushmore, SD. It's on our bucket list. Now with the camper, that door to opportunity opened. So we packed up the camper, kids, dogs, and headed out the second weekend in Oct. We almost weren't sure it was going to happen. The government shutdown was in full swing as the monkeys in Washington got lost in arguing rather than listening to the people. The Black Hills had just had the worse blizzard ever in Oct in history there. People at the campground we were going to were stuck there without power for 4 days. So we were second guessing whether we should even try, but we stuck with it. I knew the Governor of South Dakota was trying to work out a deal to open Mt Rushmore. I knew that people were fed up with all the push from the executive branch to make it as painful as possible by shutting down the parks and the policing open air monuments that you'd never seen a park police person around ever. I felt like the tide was turning and I took chance.

We started out and drove up through Tennessee and Kentucky and into Illinois. We slept at a truckstop; it was nice to have our room with us. One of the things we had to do for this trip was to prepare for the fact that the U-haul camper couldn't be the storage bucket on the back end. Usually, we just pile our gear in the camper and unload when we get to our destination. However, we had to think differently this time because we had to be able to sleep in the camper on the way. And shuffling a ton of gear between the U-haul and car didn't sound fun to me. So we packed as much as we could in the Acadia. We made up the beds before we left the house. I had the top bunk made up but folded down. The goal was to pull into rest stop, truck stop, or Walmart and get everyone to sleep quick. I was going to drive as far as I could. Our children are great sleepers in the car so letting them fall asleep and then moving them to their bunks was a key part of our strategy.

I managed to cover almost 600 miles the first day before we stopped (just east of St. Louis). The downside to sleeping at a truck stop is that the truckers all leave really early in the morning. We got up, ate breakfast, and hit the road. Our first time to St. Louis was quick. We decided we'd stop on the way home if time permitted but we needed to get to South Dakota. Custer was on the opposite side of the state from where we were going to enter South Dakota. We drove through Missouri, Iowa and into South Dakota. I had planned to break up our trip with a couple nights in hotels. I had researched and found a nice one in Mitchell, SD that had good reviews and allowed dogs. So that was our next stop at the Kelly Inn. Late on a Saturday night we rolled into Mitchell (home of the Corn Palace) after another 720 miles. It was nice to have a real bed and a hot shower; the kids loved having cartoons in the morning while we got ready to go. Later that day we finally rolled into Custer State Park. It was amazingly beautiful and we immediately laid our eyes on the wildlife that we'd heard and read so much about. On our way to the campground we had to stop for wildlife several times including buffalo and mountain sheep.

U-haul (uhaul) camper at Blue Bell Campground in Custer State Park, SD
Campsite at Blue Bell Campground
in Custer State Park
We stayed at the Blue Bell Campground and really enjoyed our stay. We would definitely go back there. The lodge was really nice too; we ate dinner there one evening. It was cold the entire time we were there. We stayed for several days and the day after we got there, the pressure from the public finally broke through to the government. A deal was struck with the Governor and people of South Dakota and Mt. Rushmore opened! It was really neat to visit and the kids had a blast. The next day we went to the Crazy Horse Monument it was Native American Day and they let us in with a food donation to their food bank. They were also blasting a part of the mountain and serving buffalo stew. While we were there, it started to snow. We found this great little restaurant one evening in Hill City called the Alpine Inn. They only serve one thing: filet mignon!  (well and hot dogs or pasta for the kids) It was delicious and I highly recommend it if you are ever in that area. Be warned to get there early; the line forms before they open and is backed out the door and down the porch (so you know it's good).

Ingalls Homestead in De Smet, SD
Ingalls Homestead
After several days enjoying the Black Hills we decided to start home with a few detours. We took off across the state and made a short detour through the partly closed Badlands. We stopped for our second hotel night at the same place in Mitchell because we enjoyed our stay there on the way up. The next morning was cold and rainy. We took off for De Smet and the Ingalls Homestead museum. My wife is a huge fan of Little House on the Praire and had been reading some to our kids on the way up to SD. It was a lovely place and they happened to have a tour group there and they let us tag along on the covered wagon tours. It was so cold and windy and wet out there it wasn't hard to imagine the brutal life on the prairie back then and how tough those folks had to be to eek out a living there.

We left De Smet heading south and about 500 miles later pulled into a Walmart parking lot east of Kansas City, MO to sleep. During the drive from De Smet we heard on the radio that the government shutdown was finally over and that the Gateway Arch would be open. So we set off early the next morning for St. Louis, MO. We found some RV parking on the river and walked down to the Arch. It was an incredible view from the top. We could see the stadium getting ready for the final playoff game. The Cardinals were hoping for a chance at the World Series if they could win game 6. I loved being in a town where you could feel the electricity in the air of baseball fans. Reminded me a lot of Atlanta in the 90s. We had a wonderful time at the Arch and set off later that day to begin the trek home.

Fiberglass U-haul (uhaul) CT13 Camper with Superman in Metropolis
Visiting Superman in Metropolis, IL.
We drove across the river and into Illinois and headed south for Kentucky. But we had one last detour to make: Metropolis, Illinois. I had promised Noah that he could see Superman. So late at night we rolled into Metropolis and woke up the kids for a short stop to see Superman. Then it was back on the road. Somewhere in Kentucky, we stopped to sleep at another truck stop. We awoke the next morning and drove the final haul home to Georgia. It was a trip full of memories and we had such a wonderful time. We also decided to tweak our packing some more the next time we take a long trip. I think that 10 days with 4 people and 2 dogs in the tiny camper is about our limit. I'm not sure we could handle more. Perhaps if we did it in warmer weather, we could squeeze a few more days in.